Did You Know It’s Still Legal to Torture Disabled People? Here’s How You Can Help

Did you know it’s still legal to torture disabled people? Here’s how you can help

Trigger Warning: This article describes physical, emotional and sexual abuse, including use of restraints and electric shocks.

Disclaimers: While I am disabled and neurodivergent, I did not experience these abuses first hand. I am also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and therefore complicit by association. I am attempting to use my privilege to bring light to this issue, but I recognize I may not always get it right even with the best of intentions. If you are Autistic, I welcome you to use my platform to share your thoughts and opinions. Please feel free to reach out to me and we can talk. This post uses several affiliate links as well as a link to a shirt in my shop. 100% of profit will be donated to NeuroClastic.

Yes, you read that right.

Not only is it legal, but it is happening right now to disabled children and adults.

The Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) is located in Canton, Massachusetts. They are believed to be the only facility in the WORLD which still uses “electrical stimulation devices” aka electric shocks on disabled people. Most of those at JRC are Autistic, or have other developmental or intellectual disabilities. They are overwhelmingly Black or Brown. Children as young as five years old can be sent there. And there are adults as old as 55 years living at JRC with no reprieve.

Electric shocks are not the only form of torture doled out, merely the most talked about. This is a horrifying violation of human rights— and one that your tax dollars may be paying for. States (largely New York and Massachusetts) paid an average of approximately $290,000 per student to JRC. They made $92 million dollars in revenue during the year 2021. Nearly all of that (97%) was from “tuition”, aka funded by state governments. As a non-profit, they also did not pay any income tax. Torture, you see, makes the big bucks, allowing them to pay Executive Director Glenda Crookes over $300,000 a year. Although the FDA attempted to ban shock devices in 2020, courts overturned this ruling later that year.

You will notice that there are many links throughout this article. This is because JRC has attempted to silence critics by issuing a cease and desist letter to advocates, claiming that there is a case for defamation. Notably, despite the fact that many have called JRC’s actions torture, including but not limited to the United Nations, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, and the Guardian… the cease and desist letter was only sent to the Autistic individuals who spoke out against their practices. Everything I say here can be backed up by research, testimonies, books and articles. In fact, it was difficult to sort through the sheer amount of information I encountered on this topic, story after story of graphic and horrifying abuse and torture. Defamation in the US is when false comments do damage to one’s reputation. I would argue that JRC’s reputation is already irreparably damaged by their own actions. Additionally, everything stated here is the truth. It is not surprising, however, that JRC would send these letters— they have a long history dating back to the 1980s of legal intimidation and threat.

It is illegal to torture animals. It is illegal to use “cruel and unusual punishment” on prisoners, even those who have committed extreme crimes like serial killers. Yet, it is legal to torture and profit off of the bodies of disabled and Autistic people. I cannot call those who attend and live at JRC “students” in any good faith— instead, I feel forced to more accurately call them what they are, victims.

Despite many lawsuits, the abuse continues because “permission slips have been signed.” In 1995, the director of the school, Matthew Israel testified that a teenager who weighed only 52 pounds was subject to over 5,000 shocks in a single day. He received a shock every 16 seconds on average. This was, Israel stated, to save his life. “I knew it was risky to use the shock in large numbers, but if I persevered that day, I thought maybe it would eventually work. There was nothing else I could think of to do…but by the time it went into the 3,000 or 4,000 range, it became clear it wasn’t working,” Israel told a court. But despite being clear it wasn’t working by his own admission, he continued to shock the teenager 2,000 more times.

Supporters and parents say that this is the only way to keep their children safe, to shock their dangerous aggressive and self-injurious behavior. But JRC has openly admitted that aversive procedures like shocking, starving or restraining victims are used for other “targeted behaviors” as well. These include saying “no”, tensing up, refusing to follow instructions, getting out of bed without permission and closing their eyes for more than 3 seconds.

Jennifer Msumba, a survivor, shared her behavior sheet which included receiving punishment for:

Getting out of bed, touch electrical outlets, dropping to floor, repetitive hand movements, removing shoelaces without permission, swearing, hesitating before passing through doorways, stopping working, sticking out tongue, taking off shoes, crying, refusing to eat, nagging, laughing at inappropriate times, talking to self, falling asleep during class/presentations, drooling, making phone calls to family, borrowing or lending items to others, blowing nose, sucking thumb, or rubbing her head.

This is not an exhaustive list. You can read her full behavior sheet for yourself here. JRC uses what they call a “Graduated Electronic Decelerator” or GED. The GED is a remote controlled device which sends painful electric shocks to students skin. This is used as a “corrective punishment”. Some victims wear up to 5 devices at a time. Each GED is remote controlled by staff members who can shock them at any time for any so-called misbehavior. Sometimes victims are accidentally shocked when there is a misfire or if staff mix up the remotes. Sometimes victims are shocked for tensing up before they thought they would get shocked.

In the first version of the GED, the electrodes emitted 60 volts and 15 milliamps of electricity for two seconds at a time. The latest version of the GED is three times more powerful and reportedly three times more painful. It has been known to burn skin, cause hair loss, muscle stiffness, impotence, scarring, memory loss, chronic anxiety, severe depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and sleep disturbance and other heath problems. Pain is deliberate and done without any true justification or investigation for why a behavior is occurring. In one interview, a former JRC teacher stated:

“One girl who was blind, deaf and non-verbal was moaning and rocking. Her moaning was like a cry. The staff shocked her for moaning. Turned out she had broken a tooth. Another child had an accident in the bathroom and was shocked.”

They also use what they call the “Contingent Food Program” and “Specialized Good Program” in which they withhold food for any “behaviors”. Food that is given is deliberately made more disgusting, such as mashing it and sprinkling it with liver powder. Victims are often forbidden to talk to each other — or to staff members, even to ask for the bathroom — without punishment. Staff members are discouraged from talking to each other and must sign an agreement barring them from ever talking about what they observe or do at the school or they will face legal consequences.

There have been six deaths, all of whom were declared to be of natural causes. Robert Cooper died at 25 years old in 1980 of a hemorrhagic bowel obstruction (staff were criticized for driving him to the hospital rather than calling an ambulance).

Danny Aswad died at 14 years old while restrained face-down on a bed in 1981.

Vincent Milletich died at 22 years old during a restraint with a sensory deprivation helmet in 1985.

Abigail Gibson died at 29 years old from a heart attack in her room in 1987.

Linda Cornelison died at 19 years old from complications related to a ruptured bowel. In the days leading up to her death, staff punished her 56 times for expressing pain.

Silverio Gonzalez died at 16 years old from head trauma after jumping from a transport bus trying to free himself in 1998.

JRC claims that their practice of aversives to modify behavior is effective. But this too is false. Nearly all of their “evidence” was authored by individuals associated with JRC. Even B.F. Skinner called reports regarding the use of aversives at JRC (then known as the Behavior Research Institute or BRI) “disturbing”. As a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), I have studied and worked with individuals with severe maladaptive behavior. I have witnessed learners bite themselves until they bleed, attempt to jump out of windows, put their heads through drywall and glass. I have even been hospitalized in the past as a result of severe aggression. All this is to say that I understand how dangerous an individual with no regard for their own safety or that of others can be. Much of my experience occurred less than 30 miles away from JRC. And yet, I have never once even considered causing pain to my students.

I am not alone. Nearly 900 other Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) professionals disagree with JRC according to a study by NeuroClastic (an Autistic advocacy non-profit run by and for Autistic people). The procedures used at JRC are justified as ABA therapy. They are not wrong. This is ABA and this is abuse. I have long tried to keep my own practice ethical and to do right by my clients. I have dedicated my life to empowering others to leading fulfilling lives free from self-harm or injury. I believe in the principles of ABA and how it can be used for great, positive change.

But I can no longer ignore a fundamental truth — that as long as JRC exists and places are allowed to abuse disabled people in the name of ABA, that the entire field is complicit. It is difficult for me to acknowledge this truth. It may be difficult for you too. When we allow places like this to exist, we are part of the problem.

The effectiveness of JR is irrelevant.

There, I said it. It isn’t effective, but it could be and this would still NOT BE OKAY. We do not shock pedophiles. We do not shock serial killers. Even prisoners on death row are not treated this way. The ACLU stated in a federal hearing that:

“The GED causes significant physical and mental pain to vulnerable students with disabilities, who are legally and physically held hostage. Whether the GED creates permanent or temporary behavior modification in some, many, or all of the students is immaterial. The use of a noxious electrical stimulus is inhumane. The fact that we consider using it on people with disabilities – and only people with disabilities – is evidence of significant bias and discrimination.”

Despite this, despite even the United Nations calling for an investigation and declaring JRC’s actions to be no less than torture, the abuse continues. Most recently, the FDA attempted to ban the use of the GED device. However, this was overturned by the courts and continues to this day.

More recently, JRC is a sponsor of the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI)’s annual conference. Although special program requests or sensitive topics are supposed to go through the Program Committee, JRC did not go through any sort of peer review or stakeholder feedback. ABAI CEO Dr. Maria Malott and the Executive Council went ahead and created two symposia for JRC. The Program Committee Chair and Program Board Director (Amy Odum and Jonathan Tarbox) resigned from the ABAI board in protest. This tacit endorsement of JRC is unacceptable and even before this, ABAI has had a troubled relationship with JRC. Richard Malott, a former president of ABAI, still sits on JRC’s board of directors.Supporting JRC is a violation of the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB)’s Ethics Code for Behavior Analysts. While the BACB does not explicitly condemn the GED, there are plenty of violations to be found.

There is so, so much more I could say. As a BCBA, as a disabled person, as a neurodivergent person, as a human being, I am utterly disgusted by these practices. And while JRC is the only place shocking victims, they are far from the only place abusing children and disabled people in the name of treatment. If you are interested in learning more about JRC’s horrific past and current future, I recommend reading Lydia Brown’s Living Archive & Repository on the Judge Rotenberg Center’s Abuses, “Shouting at Leaves” by Jennifer Msumba (a survivor of JRC), “Pain and Shock in America” by Jan Nisbet, and checking out NeuroClastic.

TAKE ACTION – What Do we do now?

  1. Sign the petition to stop JRC from presenting at ABAI
  2. Donate to NEUROCLASTIC’S LEGAL FUND. We know that JRC loves to sue people and they are extremely wealthy.
  3. During the conference (MAY 26-30), flood the hashtags #BetterThanABAI #BoycottABAI #ABAI2022 with whatever you’re doing other than ABAI or anti-JRC stuff.
  4. If you are attending the conference, turn your back or walk out on JRC speakers and executive council members. Wear anti-JRC merchandise.
  5. Call, write, email or tweet at your congresspeople. NeuroClastic has a great guide and example here.
  6. Hold individuals/organizations associated with JRC accountable.
    • What do I mean by that? Most of the Board of Directors of JRC are professors at various universities. The legal system has failed to hold JRC accountable and so societal pressure must do what the legal system cannot. Sure is interesting all of them do not disclose their association with JRC on their websites or LinkedIns.
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